How Much Research Is Too Much Research?
April 29, 2011
At one point in the writing of this memoir about my father’s wartime experience, I decided that I needed to know far more about World War II than I did. Oh, I’d studied World War II in high school and college history class. And I’d read a great deal about the war when I was writing about Virginia Woolf’s life. But when I started this memoir, I had a nagging suspicion that I didn’t know anything that I needed to know. And I was right.
My father served on an island in the Pacific, and everything I’d learned had been about the war in Europe. I’d heard of the important battles of Midway and Guadalcanal. But I knew nothing, really, about the island hopping strategy to defeat the Japanese in the Pacific. And so I began to educate myself.
A few years ago, I bought several sets of tapes, hundreds of hours of tapes, about the war. Documentary footage. Sets of TV series about the war. Scores of books. First person accounts and memoirs. And I started watching and reading. I spent six months on this research, and when I finished (or thought I was finished), I was astonished, not by what I’d learned, but what I had yet to learn.
I wanted to know what my parents’ lives were like during that war. I wanted to know what they were reading in the newspapers. I wanted to imagine how what they’d learned had affected them. I wanted to do this because I wanted to contextualize their personal lives in the context of the history of their times because, of course, they were affected by their times, and not only in the most obvious way – that my father left his family to go to the Pacific. I imagined that every moment of every waking day of their lives must have been affected by the times they were living in, and I wanted to be able to recreate that world, their world.
I’ve read a lot of memoirs that are so intensely personal that it’s as if the people written about were living their lives in a world sealed off from history. As if love affairs were begun and ended, children conceived, born and raised in isolation from the historical moment in which these events occurred. And when I started to write about my parents’ story during World War II, I tried to do that. I tried to write only about their lives and not about what was going on around them until I realized that this would be impossible.
I wrote the first few drafts of how they set up their first apartment – the work they did in papering the walls, buying and setting up furniture – for example, without realizing that while they were doing this work, the radio reports they listened to were telling of fires raging through bombed out London because there was no water left to fight the fires; of the German invasion of the Soviet Union; of the uncovering of a Nazi spy network in the U. S. and their plan to bomb the docks where my grandfather work; of Roosevelt’s speech declaring that the U. S. would no longer isolate itself from the war; of Mayor LaGuardia’s issuing an order for 50 million gas masks in the event of a German attack.
All this happened before the war, and, initially, I didn’t understand that the slow creep towards war profoundly affected them.
Setting up house is one thing. Setting up house when you’re listening to news reports telling you your husband-to-be will soon be gone is another. Setting up house when you’re listening to reports that other people’s houses are burning is another. Setting up house when you’re hearing that New York City might be bombed is another.
What I’m saying is that we all live in history, only that when we write our memoirs we sometimes forget that no life is lived in isolation.
I’ve learned through time that early in the writing of memoir, many writers keep their stories close. That is, many writers write only about their lives and not about the historical moment. Many writers of memoir stop there. And that’s fine. That’s one kind of memoir. But it’s not the kind of work I’ve found myself doing now.
I’ve felt compelled to try to contextualize my parents’ lives in their history. For their history is, of course, my own.
I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that I think there’s an impulse in the United States to think about our lives in an ahistorical way. That is, there’s an impulse in the United States to think about our lives as if they’re unaffected by the times we live in. Our wars, these days, are waged by a few. We are not asked to make the sacrifices other generations that have gone to war have made. There’s no rationing. We haven’t been asked to use less gasoline. We haven’t halted the production of cars. We haven’t had to cut down on our intake of butter, meat, sugar, flour. We haven’t had to stop wearing nylon stockings. There seems to be an impulse, here, to pretend that whatever happens really doesn’t matter to our individual lives. That we can love and live “normal” lives, unaffected by history. All of us, of course, except those few of us profoundly affected by history.
And I think this impulse carries over to the way we tell our stories, our life stories. At least those of use who continue to act and think as if we live in an historical vacuum.
But in fact, though we often pretend that we do, none of us really does.
I often ask the writers I work with to find out something more about the people they’re writing about. Something about their history – not only their personal history, but about the historical moment surrounding their lives. Many resist, and that’s fine. I know that when I started writing about my parents, I didn’t want to see them as having lived lives profoundly affected by history. I wanted to see them only as my parents, only as inhabiting the space inside our dwellings. And why that’s so, I can’t say.
I’ve just finished, early this morning, a time line tracing the events that happened during a two-year period I’m now writing about – the years just prior to my father’s deployment. I’ve plotted this time line against the events in my parents’ lives. And doing so has unearthed much that I’m still pondering. What must it have been like, for example, for my parents to take a walk overlooking the Hudson River and to have seen hundreds of ships there – a convoy about to make its way across the North Atlantic, a convoy, that they would later read was attacked by U-boats. What must it have been like, for example, to go down the Jersey shore, as they did, as see body parts from downed cargo ships wash up on the shore?
A trip to the ocean is one thing. A trip to the ocean with flotsam from sunken ships, body parts washing up on shore, and oil from downed tankers is quite another.
So although I’m using only a small part of the research I’ve done, I’m happy that I’ve read and viewed as much as I have. Because I think it’s all drawn me closer to what their lives must have been like.